Spring 2011


Here are some musings about the birds and wildlife we encountered on our spring pelagic trips this year.  As has been the case since 2006, we ran these trips on our own boat and there was an intense concentration of effort during the last week and a half in May and the first week of June.  We ran daily trips from May 20 through June 6 and only had to cancel one day because of weather.  Generally speaking, the ocean was calmer than average during this period.  A lack of wind was probably a contributing factor to low numbers of some species, but we won't complain about that.  The rough trips can grind you down during these marathons.  We also ran two more trips on June 11 and 12 and these were also on days with little or no wind.  I wish we had more interest in some earlier spring trips, but the trips that we ran were well attended and we had a lot of good people on the boat as participants.  We also had good trip leaders and crew – Kate Sutherland, Steve Howell, Todd McGrath, Chris Sloan, Bob Fogg, Dave Shoch, and Will Whitley all made important contributions to the success of these trips. 


What follows is an accounting of what went on in terms of species seen.  It is important to realize that each spring is different.  Some years have similarities, but each year has a unique combination of local weather, Gulf Stream meandering, and early, late, or missing birds.  The birds that we see here travel thousands of miles at sea, so the idea that we can count on all of them to show up here during a two or three week window might be asking a bit much.  Along the way they face storms, feasts, and famine.  Wondering how they got here, what happened along the way, and where they will be in a day, week or month is part of what keeps me interested in seabirds and I hope you think about that too.


Black-capped Petrels made a good showing this spring in spite of the fact that we had little to no wind on many days and on several days we were birding in eddy conditions instead of typical Gulf Stream current conditions.  On the day that we saw the lowest number for the spring (7, June 4) a couple of those still made really close passes by the boat.  Some days just a quick scan of the horizon would turn up 10 or 20 Black-cappeds around us!  Overall, our Gulf Stream specialty did not let us down!


Of the rare gadfly petrels, only Fea’s Petrel was seen this spring with singles seen on May 20, 31, June 5, and 6, and two individuals on our May 29 trip.  We did not see any Bermuda Petrels, or Cahows, this spring, but it is not uncommon to miss seeing such a rare species.  There was not much wind to bring Trindade Petrels in from the east and perhaps if we had some different conditions we might have found a few.  Last July & August they made a good showing during periods with strong northeast winds, so we'll see what this summer brings us!


Numbers of Cory's & Sooty Shearwaters were the lowest we've ever seen.  While we saw Cory's Shearwater on each trip, on most days we did not find more than 20 individuals and some days most of our views were distant.  There was no wind or swell to bring the Sooty Shearwaters close to the southeastern U.S. coast this spring;  presumably they moved by us well offshore.  Great Shearwaters were scarce, but we typically do not begin to see them in numbers until around June 1.  We had single sightings on May 26 and 28 and saw them daily beginning on June 1.  Manx Shearwaters were scarce with some beginning to show along with the increase in numbers of Cory's & Great Shearwaters in early June.  We had one on the 28th of May that was sitting on the water for close approach, a treat to see this species so well, and on June 12 we had two close encounters.  There was plenty of Sargasso Weed around this spring, but it was not holding much in the way of food for the Audubon's Shearwaters!  Nonetheless, we did encounter decent numbers this spring, more than we saw last spring, and on many days we were able to approach them on the water for great views & photo ops!


Conditions for seabirding were actually great during the second week of May when we had a really good northeast blow around the 10th to the 11th, basically the only one that we had for the month.  It would have been nice to have run some trips then.  Numbers of Wilson's Storm-Petrels were low to modest on days we were out this spring, and they likely moved through in early to mid May on southerly winds.  Leach's Storm-Petrels made a pretty good showing despite the lack of northeasterly winds.  Perhaps the cooler, blended eddy water and light east and south winds combined with the lack of strong southwest winds that can push them offshore, helped to bring us good numbers especially for the last three trips!  Band-rumped Storm-Petrel was not seen until the third trip on May 22nd, but was seen daily after that.  We saw molting adults, fresh adults, and at least a couple of fresh juveniles- so probably both summer and winter breeders were encountered (as yet undescribed, cryptic species).  Only the May 31st trip encountered two, possibly three, European Storm-Petrels with intermittent sightings for at least 2 hours and 30 minutes.  The edge of the Gulf Stream was at the continental shelf edge that day and subsequently moved offshore, changing our conditions for the following days and decreasing the likelihood that we would have another encounter.  We also had close views of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels that day, but only two Leach's Storm-Petrels. 


White-tailed Tropicbird sightings were unprecedented with eight or nine seen over the course of 19 trips!  There are very few records of White-tailed Tropicbirds seen prior to May 30 in recent years, and we had the first on May 25 then two or three individuals on May 27!  Each encounter was amazing with the birds flying around the boat like they wanted to alight on the outriggers and a couple were even calling!  Does this mean we can expect to see more than usual this summer?  What is usually our spring tropicbird, the Red-billed Tropicbird, was only seen once, a juvenile on June 5.  It was spotted from afar and then relocated on the water for spectacular views!  It is worth noting here that there was also an adult Red-billed Tropicbird at Cape Point sporadically from May 23 to June 10 – while we did not find it offshore, some of our participants were lucky enough to find it on days they were ashore!


Northern Gannets were notably absent from the inlet area where we usually see at least one or two each day!  We only saw them on a couple of trips this year, so they must have cleared out by mid May.  We did well with other Sulids though, a third summer Masked Booby was seen on our June 1 trip and flew right in toward the boat, circling a few times before heading off!  Then, on June 5 we had a young Brown Booby fly by at medium distance out in the deep, the last sighting of this species on one of our trips was June 5, 2005!      


Pomarine Jaegers were seen on eleven of the 19 trips and the majority made close passes by the boat to check out our fish oil slick.  We had one of the best showings of Parasitic Jaegers in recent memory, especially considering the overall paucity of jaegers.  Many years this is the scarcest species of jaeger in the spring and we found them on seven trips.  Long-tailed Jaegers had possibly the worst showing ever since we started running daily trips in late May early June with only three definite sightings over the course of the spring.  It must be noted that there were also many distant jaegers that remained unidentified.  South Polar Skua made a good showing and we had some memorable, close encounters with the individuals we saw.  The first one that we saw on May 29 was spotted sitting on the water on our way in and sat for us to circle it before it took off! 


 Bridled Terns are often hard to find in the spring but we saw them on seven trips, mostly first summer birds, with some good views perched on flotsam.  Arctic Terns made an excellent showing considering there were no strong blows to concentrate their northward passage after mid May.  We saw 11 individuals mostly in adult plumage, but at least a couple first summers were seen as well.  June 1 we had a Roseate Tern come in to the boat – twice!  This is the first time that we have seen one here since May 2006, and we had crippling views on the first approach up the slick and then it came in again miles later (photos confirmed that it was the same individual).


While offshore we also saw a handful of non-pelagic species.  May 21 we saw a Snowy Egret and an Osprey with an adult, male Yellow Warbler landing on the boat (and some participants) for a rest and some water before escaping from our well intentioned hands to its fate.  We typically see Barn Swallows offshore, but also had Bank and N. Rough-winged Swallows as well!  On June 3 imagine our surprise to find a European Starling flying around the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels in the slick, a first for our trips!  Someone missed their chance to shout "European flying w/ the Wilson's- up high- very black, short wings and tail!"  The following day an unidentified cuckoo flew across our wake on our way offshore- you just never know what you’ll see.


Moving on to the realm of the mammal… we had an interesting spring for cetaceans.  Our usual suspects, Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins were seen on twelve and five trips respectively.  We saw Atlantic (prob Short-finned) Pilot Whales on eight trips.  They are always scarce here, but more likely this time of year than in the summer.  Risso's Dolphins were seen on two trips, with about 5 on May 28 and close passes by a large pod of 45 to 50 for 20 minutes on June 12!  We saw two or three Gervais' Beaked Whales, including one male, on May 30 and we got fairly close!  Cuvier's Beaked Whale was not seen until June 11, but we had five encounters in two days with one pod close beside us on June 12.  Sperm Whales were seen on two trips with the best views on May 22 of a small group of four individuals.  The second sighting was one distant blow June 6.  The highlight of the spring's cetaceans was pods of False Killer Whales, or Pseudorcas, that we encountered on May 29 and again on June 6.  This was like nothing we have ever seen with this rarely encountered species.  We spent almost 30 minutes each time with very playful individuals frolicking around the boat and riding the bow wave, much to the delight of those in the pulpit!  The first group was vocal and you could hear them if you were up in the bow, but the second group was just incredible to hear!  Even when none were in view under the bow, you could hear them talking to each other and see bait fish breaking the surface around the boat, presumably being either balled or scared to the surface by these intense, sleek predators.


Fishing was slow compared to most years; on many days we did not even skip a bait.  On the four days we did have baits out we caught about 10 Mahi mahi (or dolphin).  Yellowfin Tuna were nowhere to be found.  We did see two Blue Marlin close behind the boat on June 5; one of these pushed head and shoulders out of the water when crashing a trolling bait as awestruck passengers in the stern gasped at the startling sight.  Briefly hooking itself, the fish went greyhounding away at high speed before shaking the hook and going on its way!


I would like to thank our excellent people on the boat this spring, many of whom have been on dozens of trips with us over the years.  Thanks again to all of our leaders, especially Kate, who went on all of the trips, doubled as the deckhand, and made daily updates to our website.  Now moving on to summer, we'll see what we can find!  Hope to see you out there!  It could be an old time tropicbird summer like '95 or '96!

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